In the birthplace of the lean startup philosophy, Santa Clara County is thinking differently about its approach to combating homelessness.
Last July the county, with partners throughout the Bay Area, launched a new initiative: Project Welcome Home. It combines an evidence-based permanent, supportive housing strategy with the ethos of Silicon Valley’s data- and outcome-driven approach at a critical moment for the county.
Here’s how it works.
On any given night, more than 6,500 people are homeless in the county. More than 2,200 of them are chronically homeless and suffering from serious mental illness, chronic physical health issues, or other disabling conditions.
Studies have shown that chronically homeless individuals consume a disproportionate amount of government resources using safety net services, such as emergency departments and jails. In fact, the most costly 10 percent of homeless individuals in the county annually consume more in services than it would cost to provide them with supportive housing, which includes the health care, counseling and other services they need to lead stable lives.
Targeting these individuals is an opportunity to both save money for the county and improve clients’ health and lives. This is what led the county to launch Project Welcome Home and partner with Abode Services, a national leader in homeless services to provide community-based clinical services and permanent supportive housing to 150-200 chronically homeless individuals who are among the most frequent users of the county’s emergency rooms, acute mental health facilities and jail system.
Identifying those most costly and needy clients might sound simple, but it required building a complex system and sustainable infrastructure for data analytics so that county partners can track individuals as they access multiple separate safety net facilities. So in 2015 the county partnered with Palantir, a Palo Alto-based company known for world-class big data analytics software, to build a platform that reveals a holistic view of the county’s most vulnerable populations.
The platform links key social service data systems, including criminal justice, Valley Medical Center, outpatient behavioral health services, homeless services and Abode’s programmatic data. Harnessing the data helps the county, Abode and UC San Francisco to identify the highest need clients, locate and connect them to services, track their progress and monitor the success of the program every day — all while protecting the privacy and civil liberties of clients.
Stakeholders across government, non-profit, academic and technology sectors are collaborating in novel ways to generate insights, spot trends and proactively improve outcomes for clients.
To further ensure both successful results and accountable government spending, the county is combining this “housing first” strategy with a new approach to contracting for social services, a performance-based system known as Pay for Success.
Using Pay for Success, governments, and by extension taxpayers, only pay for successful outcomes rather than paying for the activities or services provided. Using the system — the first of its kind in California and just the eighth nationwide — the county only pays if Project Welcome Home achieves defined, measurable outcomes of long-term, stable tenancy verified by UCSF.
One year in, the program is meeting its success metric. The county is tracking and paying for outcomes that better target taxpayer dollars to improve lives.
Project Welcome Home is just the start of an ongoing experiment. UCSF researchers are also evaluating the effectiveness of the county’s housing services in improving client health, lowering unnecessary use of services and producing savings. This will be a rigorous, six-year study that can be the basis for policy decisions here and across the country.
Innovation in the public sector can happen when governments are willing to take a different approach and leverage the collective expertise of their community. Santa Clara County is fundamentally reshaping how homeless services are being delivered in the 21st century, while embracing the best of Silicon Valley.
With this mind set and data orientation, Project Welcome Home is just the beginning of how governments engaging in innovative partnerships are redefining social services.
Gary Graves recently retired as COO of Santa Clara County and has been deeply involved in supportive housing projects. Alice Yu is a Deployment Strategist at Palantir and led the design and development of the data platform for Santa Clara County. They wrote this for the Mercury News.